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Yelü Chucai – Confucian Official for the Mongols

    When Yelü Chucai (pronounced ‘yeah-loo choo-ts’eye’) was born, his 60-year-old father knew he wouldn’t see him grow up.

    But he declared that his son would become “a great weapon that would be used by a foreign state.”

    His prophecy came true: Yelü became a great weapon for the Mongol empire – but an administrative weapon, not one of war.

    Yelü once famously told Ghenghis Khans’ son Ögedei:

    The Empire was created on horseback, but it cannot be governed on horseback.

    And one historian described him as:

    Tartar by origin and Chinese by culture. He was the natural intermediary between oppressors and oppressed.

    – Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat, quoted in Rene Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia (trans. Naomi Walford) (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1970), p.251

    Early life

    Yelü Chucai (耶律楚材 [Yélǜ Chǔcái]) (1190 – 1244 AD), courtesy name Jin Qing, was born in Zhongdu (today’s Beijing) during the Jurchen-ruled Jin dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD).

    He was born into an aristocratic Khitan family. He was the ninth-generation descendent of the former Khitan Empire’s founder Yelü Abaoji, aka Taizu Emperor (872 – 926 AD)

    And his father, Yelü Lü (1131 – 1191 AD) was the Jin dynasty prime minister under three emperors. He died when Yelü was two years old.

    The Khitans preserved their own distinct culture. During the Jin, their ruling families often intermarried with their Jurchen peers, but marriage with the Chinese was forbidden. 

    Despite this, both Khitan and Jurchen elite were highly influenced by Chinese culture and many – including Yelü – received a Chinese education.

    Who were the Khitans?

    Archer and Horse by Li Zanhua
    Archer and Horse (Five Dynasties period) by Li Zanhua, book leaf, ink and colour on silk, 27.1 x 49.5 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data).

    The Khitans were an ethnic group that inhabited steppe region of Manchuria (today’s north-eastern China). They were semi-nomadic hunters and agriculturalists made up of a number of clans, including the Yelü clan.

    They had previously given tribute to the Chinese Tang dynasty (618 – 906 AD). They then formed the Khitan Empire (916 – 1125 AD) (also known as the Liao dynasty).

    This was eventually destroyed by the Jin dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD), founded by Jurchens (who later renamed themselves Manchus) that originated further east in Manchuria.

    The Jin ruled Northern China (and more) before it was defeated by another steppe people – the Mongols.

    Khitan vs. Chinese customs

    Khitans’ cultural differences with the Chinese could be seen in many areas.

    One example was marriage. For the Chinese, marrying across generations or marrying one’s brother’s widow were taboo (the latter was even considered incest). But for the Khitans, both of these were permissible.

    Another was burial. For the Chinese, burials surrounded by prescribed ritual and regulations were important and crying at a funeral was considered pious. 

    The Khitans’ custom was to place corpses in trees in the mountains. They went back for the bones a few years later to cremate them. Crying was seen as a weakness.

    Yelü Chucai’s life and career

    Yelü passed the Jin imperial exam aged 16 with an education that included Chinese poetry and calligraphy.

    The same year, 1306 AD, he was awarded the relatively high government position of tongzhi for the city of Kaizhou (today’s Fengcheng, Liaoning Province).

    This was a position on the fifth level of the nine-rank system (level one is the highest).

    He was a capable official, and received promotions during approximately nine years of service.

    But by 1215, he was in Zhongdu (today’s Beijing) when it was captured by the Mongols.

    The Jin dynasty would fall completely to the Mongols about 19 years later.

    Invitation from Genghis Khan

    Yuan dynasty Portrait of Genghis Khan by unknown artist
    Portrait of Genghis Khan (Yuan dynasty) by unknown artist, book leaf, ink and colour on silk,  47 x 59.4 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Alamy).

    Yelü was taken prisoner when the Mongols captured Beijing.

    Some accounts state that he also spent some time at a Buddhist monastery in the immediate aftermath.

    Either way, he was soon invited directly by Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227 AD) to join the Mongol empire’s government.

    (The Mongols often employed the talents of officials from the lands they conquered. Another famous example is the great Zhao Mengfu (1254 – 1322 AD), who would be recruited by the Mongols in 1268).

    Yelü must have been a distinct figure. Genghis Khan was said to have been impressed by his tall stature and the sound of his voice. He even gave Yelü the nickname urtu saqal’ – Mongolian for ‘long-bearded man’.

    Promoting Chinese culture and governance in the Mongol Empire

    After Ghenghis passed away, Yelü served under the brief rule of regent Tolui Khan (r. 1227–1229 AD), and then Ghenghis’ third son Ögedei Khan (r. 1229–1241 AD).

    Portrait of Ögedei Khan
    Portrait of Ögedei Khan (Yuan dynasty) by unknown artist, book leaf, ink and colour on silk,  47 x 59.4 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons).

    It was under Ögedei’s rule that the range and depth of his administrative talents were seen. He worked variously as the finance minister and prime minister for the Mongols.

    Ogödai put full trust in the Sinized Khitan Ye-lü Ch’u-ts’ai, who strove to establish an administrative counterpart to the purely military government in the Chinese manner […] he set up Chinese, Tangut, Uigur and Persian departments within the Mongol Chancellery […] organized storehouses of grain at regular stages along these routes […] gave the Mongol Empire a sort of fixed budget […] opened schools in Peking and Pingyang for the “Confucian” education of young Mongol lords, and at the same time recruited into the Mongol service a great number of Chinese. “The Empire,” he told Ogödäi, “was created on horseback, but it cannot be governed on horseback.”

    – Rene Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia (trans. Naomi Walford) (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1970), p.256 – 257

    He also promoted cultural practices which, with his Confucian education, he would have seen as essential as all practical matters.

    One example is the ‘rites’ (礼 []), an important Confucian concept which can also be translated as ‘ceremony’, ‘ritual’, ‘rules of conduct’ or – as Simon Leys put it – ‘civilization’.

    The rites represent a fundamental Confucian value, more or less equivalent to our concept of “civilization”. On the formal level they constitute a sort of liturgy, but like our own liturgical rites, these forms, when properly understood and performed, are not hollow: they are effective and operative, they regulate and teach. When the ritual practice becomes loose, civilization is eroded and barbarism creeps in.

    – Simon Leys, The Analects of Confucius (London: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2014), p. 65 – 66

    Role in stopping Mongol slaughters

    Yelü’s emphasis on administrative rather than military matters helped save many lives, buildings, and artworks.

    He is said to have often persuaded the Mongols not to put many defeated cities to the sword. Of course, he wasn’t always successful. Ögedei is said to have once retorted to him, “Are you going to weep for the people again?”

    One well-known example of his humanitarian interventions came when the Mongols took the Jin dynasty’s southern capital (today’s Kaifeng, Henan Province) in 1232.

    Another came during Genghis’ last campaign in Gansu province:

    He explained to the Mongols, to whom any such idea was unknown, the advantages to be gained from fertile soil and hard-working subjects. He made clear that by imposing taxes on land and exacting tribute on merchandise, they might collect 500,000 ounces of silver yearly, 80,000 pieces of silk, and 400,000 sacks of grain.

    Gabriel Deveria, quoted in Rene Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia (trans. Naomi Walford) (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1970), p.251

    Later life and death

    After Ögedei passed away, the queen Töregene Khatun was regent between 1241 – 1246.

    Yelü fell out of favour early on during her rule. She dismissed him and replaced him with a different finance minister, Abd ar-Rahman.

    A depressed Yelü passed away shortly after this, in June 1244, aged 53.

    After Yelü‘s lifetime

    Detail from Khubilai Khan Hunting by Liu Guandao
    Detail from Khubilai Khan Hunting (1280) by Liu Guandao, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 182.9 x 104.1 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Alamy)

    Nearly two and a half decades – and four rulers – later, Ghenghis’ grandson Khubilai Khan (1215 – 1294 AD) declared the ‘Great Yuan’ dynasty (1279 – 1368 AD).

    Within a decade, it had taken over all of China, which it would rule for nearly a century.

    Thanks to Yelü’s (and others’) efforts, the Yuan dynasty preserved and even promoted Chinese culture during its rule.

    The historian Timothy Brook argues that in turn, some of the Yuan’s Mongol ways also influenced subsequent Chinese governance, too.

    The century of Mongol rule that Khubilai inaugurated did not just pass like a fleeting cloud across the face of an eternal China. It altered China in ways that did not disappear with the Mongols and in ways that became hidden in plain sight: the elevation of emperor to supreme status; the creation of a cadre of power servants whose duty was to obey the emperor rather than the state he ruled; the ready resort to naked power to ensure the rights of the ruler; the redefinition of moral conduct as submission to the whims of High Heaven.

    – Timothy Brook, The Great State (London: Profile Books Ltd., 2019), p.34

    Yelü Chucai’s calligraphy 

    Poem of Farewell for Liu Man (1240 AD) by Yelü Chucai
    Detail from Poem of Farewell for Liu Man (1240 AD) by Yelü Chucai, running script, ink on paper, 36.5 x 275.5cm. The Metropolitan of Art, New York. (Image source: Alamy)

    Yelü’s love of calligraphy is said to have helped inspire subsequent generations of Mongols royals to take up the art.

    His own writing was clearly inspired by the calligraphy of the Jin dynasty which in turn was inspired by the Northern Song period’s calligraphy.

    This in turn was heavily influenced by the Tang dynasty’s calligraphy, particularly during its high point during the high Tang period (713 – 755 AD).

    One of the two calligraphers’ whose influence is most evident is Yelü’s fellow upright Confucian Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD).

    Detail from Record of the Magu Immortal’s Altar (771) by Yan Zhenqing
    Detail from Record of the Magu Immortal’s Altar (771) by Yan Zhenqing, ink on paper, grass script. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum’s Open Data collection)

    Yan often used bold, thick and slightly square strokes (a classic feature of Tang dynasty regular script).

    Another is Su Shi (1137 – 1101 AD), the Song dynasty polymath, poet and official. Su was, along with Yan, one of the masters of running script (this is the slightly cursive – or handwritten – version of regular script).

    Yelü’s bold, strong strokes are seen by many as the embodiment of the tough, forceful empire he worked for…